Friday, November 14, 2008

Does anyone really care about the EU?

DO YOU consider yourself Irish or European first and foremost? George Bernard Shaw once said that “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” The famous line summed up, to Shaw’s mind at least, the absurdity of a loyalty determined by the accident of birth. Absurd or not, however, the power of national identity to influence, bind and rally people cannot be denied.

After all, it is this force which led millions around Europe to march dutifully to their deaths in the Somme, rather than rise up from their squalid living conditions in a workers’ revolt, as Marx had long anticipated.
Even where conscription did not oblige those to fight, a sense of nationalistic duty swept the hearts and minds of countless young men during WWI; in Britain, alone, where conscription wasn’t introduced until 1916, 750,000 volunteered in the first 8 weeks; a further million joined them in the next 8 months.

And while it was very much a European war in terms of where it was fought and the countries involved, those obliterated in its horrific barbarism were fighting in the name of Germany, or France, or Britain – not Europe. And now, as the Lisbon Treaty’s 479 pages lie in the dust-bin of political stalemate, it is worth considering just how important the question of national identity is.

That interest in the EU project has been on the wane for the last 25 years is hard to dispute; the EU-wide turnout for the 2004 elections was the lowest ever. This begs the question: is it particularly reasonable to except citizens in a particular country to feel connected with an organisation representing almost 500 million people in 27 countries, encompassing over two dozen languages and numerous cultural traditions? Despite the cynicism which politics is regarded with in this country, September’s pensioner protests over the medical cards debacle demonstrated the possibility of effecting change at a national level. Can the same be said of the EU? After all, a trip to the Dail from down the country surely seems more within reach to the average Joe than a flight to Brussels or Strasbourg.

But even if we cannot feel like European citizens, are there steps which can be taken to improve people’s perception of the union and its accountability to the people? Whether or not one feels solidarity with the Italians, Dutch or Swedes aside, the legislature of the EU, The Commission, is unelected – a fact which undoubtedly fails to inspire the minds of those unconvinced of the union’s democratic legitimacy.

It is the Commission which has the sole power to propose legislation for consideration by the European Parliament - the only directly elected institution in the EU - which it then can then amend, or accept outright. The Parliament itself has no right to propose legislation, effectively leaving the political agenda of the EU to be set by an unelected body.

Furthermore, before any amendments made by the Parliament are ratified, they must be approved by the Council of Ministers (Council) – a body made up of government ministers from the respective EU member states.


Irish MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Kathy Sinnott believes that a commission elected by the people would be a start in making the EU more democratic.

And according to Mrs. Sinnott, who sits with the Independents/Democracy bloc in Brussels, the Council typically only allows “about 80 per cent of the amendments [made by Parliament] go through”.

The MEP also believes that directly electing the Commission President through the people would go a long way towards changing the perception that the EU is detached from the people. And according to her, something similar to the U.S. system of a college of electors could be used to ensure that smaller EU countries have a significant say in such an election.

“It is important to have a weighted system so you are not lost if you are a small country,” says Mrs. Sinnott.

Another aspect of the process which serves to further alienate ordinary citizens is the issue of MEPs’ voting records in parliament. For a roll-call to be taken, in other words for a MEP’s vote to made known, an entire bloc – for instance the socialists or the EPP- in the Parliament must request it. In addition, the Commission President has the right to deny a roll-call on the grounds that it disrupts the business of the parliament. This effectively means that, come election time, the ordinary voter may have no idea what his or her MEP has been voting on for the previous five years.

No matter what level of reform ever takes place, however, it seems quite likely that an institution as vast and culturally incoherent as the EU will never be seen as readily accessible by the man on the street. And if our war-time example of the power of patriotism seems far removed from everyday life, disregard it; the almost religious fervor typically expressed at an Irish soccer, ruby or GAA match is testament enough to the fact the flags, borders and anthems still hold sway with the masses.

The day 80,000 gather, gripped by excitement, in Croker under a yellow-starred banner of blue, will be the day the EU no longer seems too abstract for most people to have a real interest in; and the day I’ll eat my T-shirt.